SOME 250 blacks, whites, Asians, and Hispanics stood hand in hand singing a gospel hymn at one of the country's oldest banks. Not your typical business meeting. This was the scene at the Bank of Boston's headquarters earlier this month. In honor of Black History Month, the bank's black caucus sponsored a forum on workplace diversity.
Richard Orange, a leading diversity consultant who led the forum, used music to help create a dialogue between African-American employees and their nonblack colleagues. His theory: Getting people who are different to talk removes fear and lets people be themselves - and that enhances productivity.
How many people feel ''free'' to be themselves, Mr. Orange asked the mostly black group. Only a few hands went up. ''Why do we need to be free?'' he boomed from the podium. ''If we're free, we free up these institutions.''
The message is one that's beginning to penetrate corporate America: How can companies create an environment that allows people with different backgrounds to work together more effectively and better respond to different customers.
In the last decade, businesses of all sizes and across all industries have begun to implement programs to help workers recognize and respect people of different races, ethnic origins, genders, and sexual orientations. The strategy is known broadly as diversity management.
In a 1995 survey by the American Management Association in New York, half of firms surveyed said they had formal diversity-management programs, up from 46 percent in 1992.
The rise of such efforts represents firms' growing awareness that the workplace and customer base of the future will be increasingly diverse because of demographic changes at home and the globalization of business. As a result, more companies see leveraging a diverse work force as a competitive advantage.
''In our society, we'd like to think we're open-minded, but there are lots of issues around race, gender, age, religion, etc., that we have to deal with to make certain that people are more effectively and fully utilized,'' says John Fernandez, president of Advanced Research Management Consultants Inc., a Philadelphia-based firm specializing in diversity consulting.
But some diversity consultants criticize many companies for treating diversity as ''the flavor of the month,'' citing firms that offer only a half day of diversity training a year and call that diversity management.
''Managing diversity is not a program, it's a way of doing business,'' says Roosevelt Thomas Jr., head of the American Institute for Managing Diversity at Morehouse College in Atlanta. It's about changing a firm's culture and systems that are in place, he says, to accept people's differences - not forcing people to fit in.
Corporate diversity initiatives vary widely. Some firms organize diversity task forces. Others offer mentoring programs for women and people of color. And some, including the Bank of Boston, have set up employee affinity groups. The most popular is diversity training for managers.
Pacific Northwest Laboratories Inc. in Richland, Wash., for example, created a pilot program to help managers grasp how to do better at retaining nonwhite workers.
Ron Walters, who heads the firm's health-research division, volunteered to be paired with a black colleague to learn about the challenges of being a minority in a mostly white workplace. His mentor encouraged Mr. Walters to attend a mostly black Baptist church service across town. Although, he says, the congregation welcomed him warmly, as a minority, he felt awkward and insecure. To Walters, the experience was an eye-opener.
Another example: San Francisco-based Bank of America kicked off an expansive diversity-management program in May 1994. It first organized a diversity task force with some 28 employees of all ranks.
The bank's goals are twofold: to create an environment ''where everyone can do their best work with all of their differences, not despite them,'' says Valerie Barkhurst, senior vice president and director of diversity; and to diversify its management ranks. The bank is putting its 14,000 managers through a two-day workshop where they are devising plans to create a more inclusive environment in their departments.
SOME diversity programs have come under criticism for reinforcing the very problems they seek to solve. Stories abound of seminars where consultants urge participants to shout at each other or publicly blame white men.
''There are some consultants who use the beat 'em up approach,'' says Mark Wallace, president of J. Howard & Associates in Lexington, Mass. ''The way we approach it is: Let's not have a lot of discussion about how we got into this mess.... We're not going to blame anyone.''
Diversity consultants offer some guidelines for successful diversity management.
* Help everyone understand what diversity means, how it relates to the business, and what the benefits are.
* Evaluate the company's culture and determine what changes need to be made.
* Let top management lead the effort.
* Hold everyone accountable.
* Develop criteria to measure progress.
* Evaluate personnel policies to make sure they include everyone.